Earworms: Why do they stick and how can you shift them?

Earworms are those catchy tunes that get stuck in your head. Why are they so prevalent and what’s the best way to dislodge them?

In The Sticky Song, music psychologist Lauren Stewart answers your questions:

1. What makes an earworm?

Tunes with simple ups and downs are easier for our brains to latch on to. These “melodic arcs” are common in nursery rhymes but also feature in many pop songs and classical pieces.

Unusual or unexpected “melodic leaps” are another feature of earworms. Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance is a good example, as we hear in this clip:

2. Which are the most “earwormy” songs?

You might not be surprised to read that recent and frequent exposure to a song makes it more likely to get stuck in your head. And people who sing and listen to music a lot tend to get earworms more often than others.

But which songs are most likely to be troublesome? Listen to this earworm countdown to find out:

3. How do you dislodge an earworm?

Researchers found that people had a variety of techniques for shifting earworms. A popular method was listening to speech radio or other music such as the national anthem.

Another unusual tip was to chew gum. Listen to this clip to discover why it works:

4. Can earworms be useful?

We have hundreds of thousands of tunes stored in our long-term memory. Dr Lauren Stewart says that if we spontaneously recall one of them, it could be our brain’s way of “nudging us” when our level of consciousness has dropped. This could even help us in life threatening situations, as we hear in this clip:

Listen to The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry for more about earworms.

More from Radio 4